Tom Eblen

The roof caved in 8 years ago. Now, building has high-end ‘urban industrial’ condos.

The roof caved in after a heavy rain eight years ago. Now, the former electronics store and warehouse is Lexington’s newest example of urban infill housing.

Bell Court Condos is the only building on Skain, a one-block street between Forest and Indiana avenues at the edge of the Bell Court Historic District and in the shadow of the Lexington Herald-Leader building.

Don Wathen and his business partner, John McDonald, bought the 25,000-square-foot, two-story building in August 2016 from the owners of Radio Electronic Equipment Co., who had rebuilt it after the roof collapse in July 2010.

Wathen and McDonald saw an opportunity to create 16 “urban industrial” condos. But first they needed to cut more than 50 windows in the circa 1962 building’s thick block walls.

“We literally got a concrete chainsaw,” Wathen said with a laugh. “It was a real treat.”

They created 14 two-bedroom/bath and two one-bedroom/bath units, ranging in size from 936 to 1,225 square feet. While each unit is different, they all have high-end kitchen and bathroom fixtures, polished concrete floors and high “industrial” ceilings with exposed steel beams and HVAC ducts.

Insulation was added behind interior walls. There is a roof deck for entertaining, storage space, bicycle racks, a “pet spa” for washing dogs and an exercise room.

The project was recently finished, and Wathen said six units have already been sold.

The partners plan to keep one unit as a short-term “executive housing” rental. Prices range from $219,000 and $240,000.

Wathen said buyers have been a mix of professionals and retired couples wanting to live in town. “The interest is there,” he said. “It’s all about location.”

The project was something different for Wathen, 75. His varied career has included being the first superintendent of the Kentucky Horse Park, remodeling homes in Chevy Chase and creating restaurants, including Nick Ryan’s Saloon.

Wathen said he thought the Skain Street location was perfect for a condo building because of its proximity to both downtown and Bell Court. Thanks to the city’s “adaptive reuse” rules, he didn’t have to seek a zoning change for the property, but he did have to meet several special conditions.

Jim Duncan, the city’s planning director, said the Bell Court Condos are one of the few purely residential adaptive reuse projects he has seen in Lexington recently, but it made sense because of its location.

Duncan said most adaptive reuse projects have been mixed-use, such as the Bread Box complex (West Sixth Brewery) and the Distillery District. But more adaptive reuse housing is on the way.

In October, developers filed plans for 255 housing units in three buildings at the Distillery District. And Holly Wiedemann’s AU Associates will soon begin converting some old buildings at the Veterans Administration hospital complex on Leestown Road into 50 units of affordable housing for veterans and their families.

Wathen wouldn’t say how much they spent acquiring and renovating the Bell Court Condos property. “It was a lot more than I intended to, but it’s workable,” he said.

He expects to see more projects like this around Lexington, although there is a limited supply of appropriate buildings and locations. “You’ve got to look at what has to be done and what has to be spent,” Wathen said. “These are never simple projects.”

Other than carefully calculating costs and managing finances, Wathen said there are two keys to success with this kind of project: working closely with the city’s Division of Planning, and being a good neighbor.

“It’s a partnership,” he said. “You’ve got to listen to a lot of people and realize you don’t have all the answers.”

Several recent infill residential projects in Lexington’s suburbs have drawn strong opposition from surrounding neighborhoods. Wathen said he tried to work closely with the Bell Court Neighborhood Association, and especially with his immediate neighbors along nearby Forest Avenue.

“From the beginning he’s been very respectful and solicited input,” said Wyn Morris, one of those neighbors and the former owner of The Morris Book Shop. “I think they’ll ease into the neighborhood pretty gracefully.”

Tom Eblen, the Lexington Herald-Leader’s metro/state columnist since 2008, writes opinion and feature columns. A seventh-generation Kentuckian, he was the Herald-Leader’s managing editor from 1998-2008. Eblen previously worked for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Associated Press. He is a member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame.
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